For my fellow Ontarians, particularly those in the Durham Region, how many of you when you look back on 2020 remember the “nuclear incident” scare of 2020? Oh, you forget about that? Yeah, that was the kind of year it was. I mean, really, that was when I wondered if I had enough toilet paper. Yet it was all but a blip of the radar compared to what followed.
I am fortunate that no one I knew that got Covid-19 died or had any serious complication to my knowledge, I am very grateful for this. I’m grateful for a lot of things.
For me 2020 was a year of extremes and intense growth and shifting of habits. I mean, think about the habits you stopped or acquired, good or bad during this phase. These are the things that prove change. Good or bad. That’s what we think about at the start of the year. Habits.
For me it became a year of my dissecting what truly matters, who I was, what was my life meant to be I spent much of it grappling with the after-effects of a longterm imploded relationship, ever grateful not to be trapped in it during the lockdown, but experiencing what I can only imagine was a lighter version of some kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Angry, frustrated, anxious, fearful, endless looping over the same material until it finally culminated in the one question, how did I get here? What habits did I fall into, that lulled me into adapting?
The more I was forced to question, the more I explored and dug, the more I tested my assumptions and beliefs, the more I poked at painful things, the more I saw that the answers did not just reflect how I had got stuck in a relationship, but how I had got stuck in life.
I started a habit of writing in a journal in 2020. This, out of anything else, was probably the single most instrumental cause for change in my life. In 2020 I had no one to really talk to about all these deep thoughts as much as I wished, to listen to my circling complaints, to talk about the meaning and purpose of life and the Universe. In fact, all of the world was talking up a freaking storm, there was no one to listen. And no one was listening to themselves.
The habit of the journal became something I came to look forward to with my cup of tea in the morning. Time for myself when it was quiet. I spent a lot of time writing, and since writing is thinking, a lot of time thinking. And through this I began to work things out, starting with the most difficult things or pressing things or whatever I was preoccupied with. Complaints. If you complain long enough you might get tired of simply complaining if there is no one to correct you, console you, or for you to fight against. Maybe you start to wonder in the echo of your own voice, why did you let it happen? What should, maybe, you do or have done about it?
Listen to your complaints, they tell you more about yourself than you realize. What is your part in it? Why did you put up with it, tolerate it, accept it? How could you tolerate it when someone else could not? Why does it bother you so much? What made you tolerating and accepting? I told myself I did it for love, I did it because I was honouring commitments, I told myself it was because I believe in the good in us all, believed in the power to change and to grow.
Be careful here. What do they call this? Virtue signalling? You can do it to yourself. Absolve yourself of responsibility. So ask again.
In the privacy of a journal you can tell the truth if you lock that thing away. It is for no one but yourself. What are those things that only you know?
What whispers from the Universe did you ignore? Again and again. And why? Start with the feeling. The feeling is not the truth, but it is the path to the truth. Why were you afraid? What did you worry would happen? What did you get out of it? Find your way in. Let the feeling tell you if you are being honest. Honesty is key. It’s real.
You have to ask these kinds of questions with the gentlest of compassion for yourself, the gentlest of empathy. Otherwise, you are doomed to repeat your mistakes because if you are not kind, you cannot face the truth of it. And the truth is far less judge-y and a whole lot achy. And it’s a sad, sad thing that none of us can escape the traumas of our childhoods. But nonetheless, there it is. Now what? What do you do?
My art changed when I used my rabbit pictures to express feelings I could not talk about. Frustrations with the world, the claustrophobia of the world’s neediness, other things. The feelings echoed what a lot of us were going through with the pandemic so I thought they were right for the time. But they reflected a deeply personal struggle. The whimsical rabbit took on a role. I was starting to express something difficult, bigger. And the oddest thing happened. I thought those feelings could drive my work and the next and the next, but instead, it worked something out. Not all of it. Just something. The work became a little healing. How odd.
By June I started seeing how I had hidden and began to see that it was not only my right but perhaps my duty to be authentically who I am. That I had to embrace my flaws, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Find my warrior in order to step out of the shadow of safety.
Only by being your authentic self do you have any gifts to give the world.
But also that we need to be clear on boundaries. This is who I am. There will always be people there to invalidate you. It really means nothing. It is really not about you.
It was here when my art started took a bigger shift. The rabbit head came off. At first I didn’t connect the two things, really. The rabbit series was feeling done for now. Starting the self-portrait seemed of be out of necessity. Who else was around? An act of faith toward making the effort for more meaningful art that most certainly couldn’t be a selfie but had to start somewhere.
I only saw that I needed to come out of hiding creatively. But how do you do that without being so vulnerable that just a whiff of judgment has you cowering in failure? How do you find your warrior? If you don’t have that solid base of acceptance to fall back on, that people think you are good enough the way you are, you must get square with the Universe. In this, we will discover that our value, our worth, has nothing to do with what others think of us. Including ourselves. We are miracles for being. Nothing anyone, you or otherwise can change that. It’s not like we control it. We did not conjurer ourselves into being. Life is a gift. We can decide it’s not but that as far as it goes.
Why are you here? What are we meant to do? Why do we have the drives that we do? Why do we feel the emotions we have, and what about morals? Why do we feel things around morals? I don’t care how atheist leaning you are (I am), how much you (I) see the world as pointless random chaos, for sure there is something far greater than ourselves at work. Why have we evolved to be just this way? If it’s nothing by science-y thinking that it’s just to keep the human race going as long as possible, well then, what is our purpose in that? What are we meant to do? This is not a moral question at all. I don’t think this answer necessarily means we must help others and all other noble things – I don’t think that is the automatic answer even if that ends up being the inevitable answer. As my husband once joked before his death, are we here just to use up excess energy in the Universe? But I find it impossible to believe that this amazing working of the body and mind are somehow just random accidents. There is a drive for something, growth, evolution, a striving against decay. We don’t know why. But it’s there.
By July I was contemplating how my life seemed to have closed up, got very narrow and personal. A clear result of the isolation of the pandemic, and deep thinking with no one to bounce concepts and ideas off of. I feel sorry for those I might have cornered into listening to me, they did a valiant job, and believe it or not, I did try to keep it contained. I know my deep thinking tribe is out there, I just haven’t quite found them yet. For now I must be as mindful as I can about the appetite my friends and family have for it. They’ve got their own worlds, without my existential pondering to add to it.
July 13th I wondered what I was meant to bring this world that I could be proud of. I had concluded that I wanted to make art that transcended where I came from, and feeling doubt that any of the work I had done to date. I done a few of the self-portraits then, feeling my way in the dark. Pure examples of my getting out of my comfort zone and being seen. Here I am. In my 50’s. Actually using up your time by showing myself to you. I stand for all women struggling with their appearance, their worth.
And yet. Was it art? Where was I going with it? Where did I want to go? I didn’t know and for someone like me, a thinker, a map drawer (even if it only gives me a lay of the land and I don’t actually follow the plan) it was deeply uncomfortable to be out. I was creating and couldn’t see my path.
July 13th, 2020, I wrote,
“The antidote, of course, is to do and to reflect. Strive.
And of course that gets back to what is on my mind that I don’t quite know how to reflect.
What does it mean to have purpose?
I believe that we live in an unjust, random world and I really don’t want to believe that anymore. I don’t want to come to the end of my life and say, what the fuck was that? All that struggle for what?? “
And there’s the thing. Many people know I lost my husband to cancer when my eldest was a toddler and my youngest a baby. But that is just part of the many difficulties of my life. It seems like it should all be for something. I mean you can take the depressing view it’s not. Or you can choose to thrive instead. Make it count.
What I did know was that it was time to listen to those whispers the Universe delivers to you. You know the ones. You really should get that cough sorted out, for example. Ha!
Literally, I should have. In August I finally called Telehealth to discuss a cough that I had since the beginning of the pandemic. It was better than the shortness of breath I was experiencing in the Spring earlier, but shouldn’t it be gone now? Was it just my asthma? Maybe take a bit more of my puffer? I knew it could be heart failure because I had been here before with a persistent cough and a family history of heart issues, but it was ok before, so let’s just do it, get it looked at. Listen.
Telehealth told me I should go into Emergency. Eeee. Surely it wasn’t as bad as all that! Not like I had Covid-19 (even if maybe I had it early on, I wondered). Felt like a fraud.
I left the hospital several hours later with a new inhaler and the knowledge that based on xrays – although they couldn’t diagnose it based on the xrays – there was a possibility I had COPD. Terminal.
I had always thought I would want to know if I was dying. I really did. I thought it would give me time to prepare. To appreciate life. Wrap things up. To say goodbye. Because that was before I knew .
Initially, I handled the possibility just fine, really. I was grateful to know. I got really clear on what was important and that’s good. All the crap in my closet? Not important. All the people-pleasing, oh so, not important. Make your life important. That’s important. Although from what I researched, it would likely not be a speedy end. I might live for years. People did. See? Alway an upside.
, be more symbolic and less darkThe first shots of the Epiphany, although I might have called it something else, was around this point, but the death shot, as I saw it, Stealing From Yourself came from this period most clearly. That shot was not just about death. It was also this idea that even when you were at your most vulnerable people will steal from you. It became me stealing from myself because that’s what I had done by hiding, but really because I thought it would get easier acceptance, be more thought-provoking and less dark. I was pretty fearful posting that image. I didn’t want to disturb anyone. No one wants to see my darkness. I don’t want to be seen as disturbed.
I want to move people, make them see the light. That’s what my landscapes were about. Look at this, look at these signs from the Universe, this capture of time, this fleeting moment, this starlight, be moved, be grateful you can enjoy it, that you’re here. These are what I look to in my moments of darkness.
Because, as it turns out, maybe is a little dark. Is that a gift to people? How could it possibly be? No one needs darkness during a pandemic or ever. But, I thought if anything, maybe working through the struggle of my life was. For someone.
Easy to say when you are still wrapping your head around things.
I have never had a more intense experience of profound regret about my life. Never mind the rather overwhelming fear and anxiety that went with it. And my new medication that was supposed to help my breathing made it worse. I was now feeling worse than I was before I went to Emergency. It felt like this must be reflecting an end, and I had been squandering life.
Turns out, the medication just doesn’t agree with me even if any medical personal expresses doubt it should have the reaction that it did. I stopped taking it. And things got better.
Well after a month or so after the hospital visit, I got to talk to a specialist. She said you can’t diagnose rom an xray. You don’t have it. Just like that.
I was relieved, of course! But then, doubtful. If you can’t diagnose from an xray, how do you know I don’t have it? You are too young, was the answer. Whaaaa?
No one in their 50’s thinks they’re too young. Was she looking at the right chart? And the doctors at the hospital knew I had asthma, why would they have not just told me it was likely that, or possibly that, this hyperinflated lung business? The first thing they asked me after they saw the xrays was whether I was a smoker. And I used to be.
So I waited for the tests, then waited for the results, although while fighting to keep those fears and anxieties out of my head. I worked. I worked, I worked. And grieved and lay deep in fear late at night when I was robbed of sleep. The doctor seemed pretty confident. It’s not time to worry yet. But is death going to be any easier to face later? Does it matter?
Well, it’s true. Two month later the test results indicate that I do not have COPD. Asthma seemed to be the culprit. And what I might have had, besides asthma, was maybe allergies. Allergies??? Yeah. I am allergic to the pandemic. And house cleaning.
If there was anything to take from those miserable weeks was that it was a freaking wake up call. Get going. Stop worrying about things that are not important and when you forget, remember this. Make this count.
The direction is clear even if that path forward is not. I am looking for those things that evoke. I am listening to what is calling from within. My path here may be unique but the feelings are universal. I don’t know where I am heading, but I am no longer stuck.
I spent a long period of time building two “sets” this fall so that I can continue to work through the winter. It delayed the photographic work by quite a bit, but it’s important. I’m exploring the idea of “signifiers” and evokers and that includes space. Through your art you can learn if you let your higher self lead. I’m going back to my filmmaking roots with storytelling. I’m going to those emotional themes of my life. I’m pushing my way out of my comfort zones. I don’t know if I am creating anything that will move people as I wish it would. I don’t feel there yet,n not do I think the work is there yet. But I am working authentically by telling my stories because only by being your authentic self do you have true gifts to offer the world. I have moments of doubt and worry. It’s a roller coaster. Self-inflicted. Or is it?
We are changed by difficult experiences. But it is human nature for that elastic which is us to snap back. I’ve experienced it myself, I saw it with my husband in dealing with his cancer. And sometimes things do change, and I have seen that both with me and with my late husband, too. So will we learn from the lessons of 2020? I certainly hope so. But while everyone was anxious to kick out 2020, I am not sure 2021 is looking much better, vaccines in sight and all.
Certainly without insights, change cannot occur. Insights require understanding and often compassion. I hope we get there. But they also often require tolerating discomfort and I have less faith we as a collective whole can bring that on; being willing to shine the light upon yourself. For you to own your responsibility in the thing.
As I looked over my journal this morning reflecting upon this… monumental year that has been, it seemed to me that maybe it was the most mundane thing of all, a thing we might overlook because the emotion gets drained out of them that drives or thwarts real change: habits. Boring old, annoyingly elusive or resistingly persistent, habits. The difficulties may emotionally kickstart the process if you’re lucky but it’s the changing or and the developing of habits, and not epiphanies, that make it count in the end. Lots of people have ideas. The successful people are the ones that execute on them.
I thought 2020 might be my coming out more publicly here. That maybe I have a purpose, something to serve. But I think maybe I will hold off telling that story for now. I think instead if I continue with the habits that serve me, the story will tell itself. Don’t announce. Just do.
May your 2021 be prosperous and full of joy. May you find, know and live your purpose for being. May you do what you can with what you have with where you are. That is all any of us can do.
May you hear and heed the whispers of the Universe.